In a former World War II munitions warehouse, what looks like confetti from a machine gun sprays a hole-pocked screen.
Meanwhile, several automotive industry onlookers observe what some industry officials are hailing as a breakthrough in plastics composites technology.
The Sept. 25 event, at the National Composite Center in Kettering, Ohio, took the wraps off what a consortium of engineers from General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler Corp. and suppliers hope will be the first commercial pickup truck boxes made from plastic.
The preformed pickup boxes - which move to a press for molding - are made in a novel process that shoots chopped glass over a screen.
Since before the days of 'The Dukes of Hazzard,' those boxes have been made from toughened steel deemed necessary to haul heavy loads over the worst of road conditions.
But to members of the Automo-tive Composites Consortium and others, the low-volume pickup boxes are only the start of great things for plastics. It is future work in higher-volume, structural body parts - primarily the domain of steel - that has them excited.
'This is our opportunity to bring the technology to the next level on a larger scale,' said William Mellian, transportation market specialist with Toledo, Ohio-based glass producer Owens Corning. 'We hope now that the project will build confidence in the Big 3 and their molders to invest in commercial applications.'
The automotive consortium - a 10-year-old group representing GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler Corp. - has worked for about three years after carting new technology over from Europe. The consortium is part of the Southfield, Mich.-based trade group United States Council for Automotive Research.
The group has developed a lower-cost method of using structural reinforced injection molding - with fiberglass-reinforced polyurethane - to make the pickup boxes and other parts.
Until now, plastics have not played much of a role in those components, said Norman Chavka, technical specialist with Ford and the project leader for the preformed components.
But that could shift as the auto industry seeks lighter, less expensive, noncorrosive parts for such steel-dominated components as the six-foot-long truck boxes.
'The (composites) technology is going to make plastics look a lot more attractive to automakers,' Chavka said. 'It's being developed by high-level people in the industry who never would have used composites before this.'
The new technology - dubbed P4, or programmable powder preform process - is at a crucial juncture. On Tuesday, Dec. 1, the first prototype pickup boxes rolled off the National Composite Center's leased structural reinforced injection molding press. They will be sent to supplier MascoTech Inc. in Taylor, Mich., for assembly on pickup trucks.
Then the trucks will be sent to a DaimlerChrysler test site, where the consortium members will spend about six months testing the boxes for durability and performance, said Chris Terry, a spokesman for USCAR.
Automakers then will decide whether to take the boxes into production on new models.
To date, the project has cost about $4 million in equipment and production. Those costs have been split almost by thirds among U.S. automakers, suppliers such as Owens Corning and Textron Automotive Co. in Troy, Mich., and the federal government.
But not everyone in the plastics industry is pleased with the project. Makers of components from sheet molding compound believe the next wave of plastic pickup boxes should come from their ranks. The structural reinforced injection molding process is too expensive, said Kenneth Rusch, technical programs manager with Budd Plastics Co., a sheet molding compound parts producer in Troy, Mich.
'We've never figured out a way to mold a part twice (shaping a preform and then a part) and making it as cheap as molding it once,' he said. 'Maybe the (consortium is) more clever than us.'
For both sides, steel is the target. By eliminating hundreds of thousands of dollars in steel stamping dies, composites producers are banking that they can make a pickup box cheaper than a comparable steel part.
For the structural reinforced injection molding project, the boxes can be made 25 percent lighter, helping consumers save emissions and fuel costs, Chavka said.
'We've never had anything in the market before like this,' he said.
But previous attempts to make plastic structural reinforced injection molding parts have failed, Chavka said. Higher costs, longer cycle times and too much material waste have caused automakers generally to stick with steel.
Previous processes used a pricier, continuous-strand glass mat, a thicker glass layer spread over a mold. About 60 percent of the material then had to be trimmed and scrapped in a labor-intensive operation, Chavka said.
The new process replaces that with discontinuous chopped glass. The material is sprayed by a robotic chopper gun over a preform mold containing a screen with about 40,000 holes.
Compared to the glass mat, the chopped fibers reduce part costs by about 40 percent, and waste is virtually nil, Chavka said. A box, stretching the length of a pickup cab, can be made at a clip of about one every four minutes, he added.
Those preliminary figures could make composites a contender, Owens Corning's Mellian said.
'The barriers before were the inability to produce parts at high volume and low cost,' he said. 'That could be changing.'
The first pickup boxes are being made at the 200,000-square-foot, former munitions warehouse owned by the National Composite Center. An aerospace consortium, using carbon fibers instead of glass, also is experimenting with the process at the center to make composite aircraft parts.
12 POUNDS A MINUTE
For the auto industry, pickup boxes are the center of attention. The P4 technology was developed by Owens Corning in the 1980s, Mellian said. The work gelled when Aplicator Systems AB, a structural reinforced injection molding equipment supplier in Gothenburg, Sweden, sent some of its first preform machines to an Owens Corning technology center in Battice, Belgium, in the early 1990s.
Aplicator's chopper gun, mounted on robotic arms, shoots up to 12 pounds of glass each minute onto the rotating preform mold, said Peder Jonsson, Aplicator president.
The machine also sprays a melted polyethylene binder onto the glass. The mold is then placed in an injection press, where a liquid polyurethane resin is shot into it.
Aplicator estimates that a company could build two entire plants - building, land and all - for the cost difference between steel stampings for a typical structural part and that for a composite piece.
If the project goes well, Aplicator hopes to sell its equipment commercially to GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler Corp. within a year, Jonsson said.
Composites could be used for such steel-dominated areas as body side panels and large door openings, Chavka said. Douglas Denton, senior materials specialist with DaimlerChrysler and a consortium member, said composite bumper beams are not out of the question.
IS LIGHTER BETTER?
The National Composite Center was chosen to help bridge the gap between the concept and the marketplace, said Richard Lee, the center's executive vice president. The center opened three years ago as the project was beginning to bear fruit, he said.
'I think it has the potential for lowering the cost of applied composites to structures made of other material,' Lee said. 'Once the project's finished and the veil of secrecy is gone, you'll see this expanding into a lot of areas.'
But the project has its detractors. Some industry observers wonder whether pickup boxes are a good use of time. The companies could produce up to 60,000 pickup boxes annually from one machine, Chavka said.
'It's a low-volume part,' said one executive with an auto supplier. 'It won't mean that much compared to making a part on many more vehicles.'
Plus, some pickups need the extra weight, especially for off-roading situations, said Phil Sarnacke, business development manager with Phillip Townsend Associates Inc., a consulting firm in Houston. The lightweight benefits of plastic might prove an illusion, he said.
'I'm not saying it won't work,' Sarnacke said. 'But some people throw sandbags in their trucks just to add weight.'
The sheet molding compound industry also is shopping its version of pickup-box material to carmakers, Budd Plastic's Rusch said. Sheet molding compound, like polyurethane, is not used currently on a U.S.-built pickup box.
Ford and Cambridge Industries Inc., a sheet molding compound parts supplier in Madison Heights, Mich., have worked together for years to develop sheet molding compound pickup boxes, Rusch said. That provided the genesis for the new project.
But why did the industry go to structural reinforced injection molding instead?
'It can be political,' Rusch said. 'Or it could be that they wanted to experiment with something entirely new.'
Still, the industry eventually should come back to sheet molding compound because of cost, he added.
'With SMC, you can have as many as 45 pieces of steel replaced essentially by a one-piece molded part,' Rusch said. 'With SRIM, you still have to mold in ribs and attaching features. We've presented our concepts to (automakers), and they've been well-received.'
But both the sheet molding compound and structural reinforced injection molding camps agree that plastics is poised for a breakthrough in large structural pieces. What they disagree on is what exactly will be the next big thing.
'We've demonstrated that the technology can work,' Chavka said. 'Now, it's a matter of showing that we have something new and improved for pickup boxes. Testing will give us that answer.'